The Dream Crisis

Judy LiuMarch 27, 2024Crisis & ChangeFiction

Artwork by Seli Adzo Adih, age 17

Prefix

“Enough of me obeying you!” Jason heard as he stepped in the door. Maintaining a dangerous balance on one foot, he wanted to put on his shoes again and run as far as possible.

His wife, Melissa, did not think so. She slammed the door and burst into Jason’s face. “I am busy, you cannot just blame me for it! Aren’t you Selina’s father?”

Jason felt tired. “Ok, it’s my fault again, may I just go?” Without waiting for a reply, he took off his shoes and stormed into his room.

He sat on the bed and buried his face in his hands. “If the woman would listen to me once and spend more time at home,” he thought, “Selina would get better grades.”

No footsteps; maybe she also went back into her room. Jason walked out and knocked at Selina’s door. “Time to chat, Selina! Since your mother does not want to take any responsibility, I will talk to you about your math.”

He did not get any reply.

Jason knocked on the door again. He opened Selina’s room. His daughter sat at the table, head half-buried in her arms and eyes closed, with a peaceful look almost like a smile on her face. It seemed like a nap over studying.

He tapped Selina on her shoulder and spoke quietly.

Then his voice became louder and louder, but Selina would not wake.

Part 1: Lost

Selina woke up.

A gentle breeze was tapping her face. She found herself lying on soft grass, with colorful flowers blooming here and there. Butterflies danced around like dressed fairies, and fair sounds like birds singing mildly entered her ears. She could not remember how she got here.

Selina stood up and found herself in a wool dress. She tried to walk, then faster and faster, and at last started to run. There were no trees on the ample land, only endless grass of light green. A vague yet sweet happiness existed in every breath of air, from which people with the deepest inner sin would feel relaxed.

She noticed some figures on the grass. They appeared to be men and women wearing wool dresses like hers, hand knitted, dancing around a lone tree. Selina watched as another girl suddenly approached and took her hand. “Come and join the party of love and happiness!” she cried cheerfully, with a big smile on her face.

Selina looked around and saw other people in the same manner. She opened her mouth to speak: “Where am I — "

“Shhh!” The girl covered Selina’s mouth. “We do not think. We just dance around until we forget all the unhappiness.”

It was not a tree, but a high pile of grass bundled together.

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Jason called Melissa. They placed Selina onto her bed. Apart from her peaceful look, Selina’s body was cold and numb. Fear rose inside his heart.

The doctor’s expression turned strange and uncertain. “You know, madam? Maybe it is the dream crisis.”

“The what?”

“A spreading pandemic. The patients sleep and will not wake up. Their bodies get numb — yet they maintain their breath and physical health. No one knows how to wake them up. Many people in our town, especially teenagers, are infected, including the boy living next to you.”

Jason and Melissa had their dinner. Awkwardly, since Jason could notremember the last time they peacefully had a meal together without Selina.

Silence remained. Jason put another spoon of soup into his mouth, without finding any flavor.

Melissa stood up. “I need to go and write.” She went back into her room.

Jason swallowed another spoonful of soup. Mushroom, he noticed. It was the soup he had cooked on Valentine's Day years before.

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The young husband nervously knocked and opened the young wife’s door. “Do you want a bowl of soup?”

“Thanks, I love you.” The young wife was writing with her pen at a crazy speed and seemed too busy to take a look. “Help take care of Selina, will you, my dear?”

The husband put the bowl of soup next to her desk.

“I forgot, your writing day,” he murmured, “but I was just called to work.”

“Take her with you then. ”

“You are her mother and she likes your music and poetry stuff better.”

The wife threw down her pen. “So you know that you are never good at taking care of her? Then try to learn! Don’t leave it to me.”

The husband’s good mood was in ruins. “Where I come from, if a woman stays at home and does not bring money back, she at least takes care of the child.”

The husband turned away, and by pure accident, the hem of his clothes knocked over the soup. Milk-white, tempting-flavored soup with fresh mushrooms spilled over the scripts on the table, turning neat handwriting into unrecognizable dots. Melissa screamed.

“They are just useless papers anyway,” said Jason.

Melissa’s face turned bright red. “I’m a writer. I thought you were at least literate enough to know it.” She raised her hand, about to slap. Jason had already turned for another escape, when both of them stopped.

Little Selina stood in the doorway. In the silence of her parents, she walked into the room and picked up the broken pieces of the bowl.

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Jason tried to lie on the sofa but felt completely awake. He decided to take a walk.

Without his noticing, his feet brought him to a small lake. By the dim moonlight, the clear surface of the water shone mysteriously. He saw his own shadow being transformed into some simple geometrical figures; the shadow of the sky and the clouds, forming a murky yet tempting world that he could never understand.

He saw another shadow. It was twisted by a stream of water into a monstrous figure. A voice, surprisingly similar to his own, came with the cold breeze: “Jason?”

Jason turned and saw a man of his age and his form. A tall and thin man, yet with a sense of stubbornness and control in the way he looked and spoke.

“Hi, Jack.”

“I heard that your daughter got infected, I’m sorry.” Jack looked also at the lake’s surface but soon turned away. “So did my boy.”

“I hope we will all wake up — I mean, they,” Jason said dryly. “Jack, do you know the reason or treatment of this — ”

“I heard a rumor, or merely nonsense.” Jack’s face twisted, showing his disgust toward the “nonsense.”

“What is that?”

“They say you need to find the foreigner in the town bar and buy him a cup of wine. He will tell you something like soul treatment.” Jack’s facial expression showed his attitude toward this solution. “I would rather wait. My son is perfectly fine.”

Jason walked home. He sat down heavily on the sofa and wondered about the meaning of Jack’s words. “Find the stranger at the town bar and buy him a drink . . . soul treatment?” Nonsense indeed. He stopped thinking and tried to sleep.

A weak squeezing sound gently drilled into his ears. Once, twice, for the third time, Jason could not stand it anymore. He remembered grabbing all the house rats from the rooms of his brothers at the yelling of his father, hearing their sneer. I thought I got rid of rats years ago, but eventually, they came. He walked around and found the sound coming from Melissa’s bedroom.

Quietly he opened the door. He saw Melissa crying. “It’s our fault.”

“There is a way to save Selina,” he heard himself begin.

Part 2: The Truth

Selina joined their dance. Though happy at first, it soon became strange. Everyone was smiling too brightly.

A man claimed to hear music from heaven, but Selina could only hear vague noises. The food tasted too vague to be described as sweet or salty.

“Isn’t it great?” said the surroundings. Selina could not answer. She walked away.

The light did not consist of color, she noticed. There was no sun. She looked around and found her vision more blurred.

“You look confused. Why not come for some love?” an old voice rang in her ears. She turned around and noticed a gigantic label “Selling Love” over wooden stands and canvases. Some people, also in wool dresses, were busy drawing. They looked so urgent, as if their souls were trapped inside the canvas.

She saw some paintings hanging near the label. The fuzziest one had a familiar beautiful young woman in a bright yellow dress, squatting near the sea. As she walked closer its color suddenly disappeared.

“I know you will come, my girl.” The old man smiled encouragingly. “No need to worry about that painting. The poor and sinful man will also come.”

Selina could not follow his words.

“Why are you standing there? You must be tired after a long journey.” He then said, “Pick a canvas and draw your love. They will appear even if they did not throughout your life.”

It suddenly reminded Selina of herself, bringing a whole semester of 100-mark math homework to her parents, but only being asked again if she loved her father or mother, with both of them looking bright red. She acted like a cheerful girl before having to run back to her room.

“There is no paintbrush, nor pigment.”

The old man smiled even more kindly. “That’s the secret of love. You draw with your soul.”

“I shall go and see how others draw,” she murmured.

A young woman was happily drawing with her arm. A little boy’s face appeared on the canvas. Selina suddenly saw the lady’s right arm was much shorter than her left. As she watched, it became even shorter.

“Lady, your arm is fading away.” She could not remain silent anymore.

The woman turned with her strange smile. “It’s the only way I can find my boy.”

She continued drawing, with wild light in her eyes.

Selina then saw a white-haired old man. He was drawing with all the strength in his body and his pale lips whimpered. On the canvas, there was a gorgeous young girl. The old man whispered, “my sin, my soul, Lo-Lee-ta.”

Then the old man disappeared into the air. The girl on the canvas quivered. When fixed again, it became clearer, the color brighter and sharper than any other thing on the grassy land. Someone clapped behind her. “That’s the effect of love,” said the old man praisingly.

“Where’s the man?”

“Gone with the wind, forever.”

Selina managed to turn away calmly. Then she started to run.

She ran into a hall, where people danced to waltz music. A young couple approached her. “Come with us,” they breathed, “join the forever dance!”

Selina ran again. She wanted to escape from the weird place.

------------

Jason walked into the town bar for the first time.

Selina mentioned it once. I was too busy working. I only told her not to hang out there too much. He sank into a chair.

He waited until someone wearing a hood sat down in front of him. “I heard that you are looking for me.” A hoarse, hissy voice. “Let me take my wine.”

“Of course,” replied Jason. “Are you the traveler that does soul treatment?”

The traveler emptied the wine and coughed. “Not exactly. I deliver.”

“Deliver?”

The traveler put the wine heavily on the table. “You would not believe how long I didn’t take a drink after they died.” He said, “I only find people he told me to find, help them to trade with him. People abandoned their lives.”

Jason felt as if he had been thrown into a pool of icy water. “Selina abandoned — ”

“Selina? Ah, I remember the girl. I would rather be in the virtual paradise than dealing with my parents. You’re her father then?”

“Yes.” Jason managed to say, “Can you describe the soul treatment and the paradise?”

“Your girl, after agreeing with him, woke up in some beautiful garden with lovely traps to eat her soul up,” the traveler said impatiently. “You think she’s asleep? She’s dead for sure. Don’t blame me. I work for him.”

Jason watched the traveler for a few seconds before he could react. “Who’s him?”

“His name will not be told,” the traveler answered. Jason could not see the traveler’s face, but there was certainly fear in his voice.

“Any chance Selina can leave?”

“No.”

“Why not? Don’t you deliver?”

The traveler stood up, offended, but Jason grabbed his shabby robe. “Any chance I could be a substitute?”

“You can trade your soul if you like.”

“Not even talk to Selina?”

“No.”

“I am a father. My daughter is gone, alone. What I want is only a message,” Jason said desperately. If Melissa were here, she would be smarter to deal with the situation. “She probably chose to go because my wife and I did not pay attention to her. I was making the same mistake as my father. If I could only tell her — ”

“Go to Truth Valley, then shout or throw a paper down. I warn you not to go, for your soul is on the edge. Let go of me now.”

Part 3: Found

So here was Truth Valley. It was wide and the other side seemed unreachable. Streams of black mist rose at the bottom.

The mist broke, and the figure of a person with black wings appeared. Then it was covered again. He could notimagine either how Selina was wandering around this horrific place, or how a message would get through. A voice rang in his ears. Nearer, it whispered. Nearer and you are free from all troubles. A place you can truly escape. Unconsciously, Jason took a step forward.

He ought to talk to Selina first. Jason struggled away from the voice and looked around. He suddenly noticed something white nearby. He walked closer and found a rock table with paper and a pen. Without hesitating, he grabbed the pen and began writing.

Where to begin?

Jason’s fingers trembled. The ringing voice tempted him to walk to the cliff, it seemed only the obligation of completing the letter was preventing him. He felt an urge to finish it as soon as possible and throw everything away.

I will not escape now, Selina, to tell you everything. He began.

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Selina could not feel her heartbeat. Her legs were moving at the greatest frequency to escape the monster coming out of nowhere.

She looked back and nearly vomited. It was a figure, the color of human skin, looking like a combination of several people.

Vagueness could not decrease the horror. Upon the creature’s neck hung several heads, pits on each of them, looking like sags. Uncountable arms and legs combined to form the massive body. Yet it moved fast, maybe to combine another person.

Selina kept running until she missed a step. After a terrible thrilling feeling of acceleration, she was immersed in thickness — struggling out of the soft and sweet-smelling liquid covering her body, she found herself in a river of warm, honey-colored liquid.

Another wave of liquid covered her. She struggled in the thick river in vain, like an insect trapped in honey as sweet liquid entered her mouth and nose, leaving no space for air. Blackness started to cover her eyes as the faces of her parents appeared.

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Once upon a time, a poor and illiterate boy trapped in his family met a girl seeking freedom. She wanted to be a writer, he wanted to have a family, someone to tell him he was worthwhile. Their chemical reaction was taken as love.

Their parents, of course, would not agree. But like any couple in stories, they completed each other and received Selina. At last, they married. But the life that followed was without sweetness.

Starting with Selina’s childcare, the argument would never end. Jason wanted not just to silently take responsibility by himself but to be understood, but Melissa was too proud. Melissa wanted someone to respect her as an independent soul, while Jason was too confined and occupied. Only with Selina at home could there be peace, and could both find what they wanted in Selina — someone warm, smart, and full of respect.

Until Selina sank into the dream crisis.

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Jason folded the paper into a plane. He watched it flying toward the valley. I didn’t do my best, but I will, I promise. I will listen to you. I will listen to her. Come back.

Come to the front. Go to the forbidden garden by yourself, it is the only place where you can be truly listened to and found. Your soul will fly . . . come . . . That’s it, another step and you will be there.

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Selina opened her eyes. The last thing she remembered was choking for air. The forbidden garden is a place where you do not even need to breathe. She then remembered what a traveler with a hood had told her. The suffocation was illusory.

It was a sunny afternoon when Selina was doing her math homework revision. She felt sleepy, as she had not been able to fall asleep for at least three days, at least not with both her father and her mother awake. They thought crying or going out to relax at midnight would not be heard, but they were wrong. Yet she knew that the homework had to be completed in the next 10 minutes, or Mom and Dad would get into another fight over the charge of her studies.

There was an art seminar held in the town bar in the meantime, to which she was specially invited by the teacher. Her friend asked her to come to a birthday party for the last time. She wanted to get a copy of self-healing for Martin and John. None were completed as she wanted them to be satisfied. “Aren’t you her father?” She heard her mother again.

For the fifth time, she marked off an unintelligible dot on her homework. A figure appeared at the window. A stranger with a shabby hood. “I heard your call, my child. There’s a place for your soul to rest.”

Refreshment of memory did not give her any sense of happiness. Here’s the place of happiness, she thought, so ironic. It was a cave. Not dark — nothing she saw after waking up was dark.

Strange black and red figures were floating in mid-air.

They were words. “It-Is-The-Only-Place-Without-Loneliness?” She pronounced the words quietly. “I-Cannot-Bear-To-Live-Among-Them-So-I-Find-My-Belongings-Here?” “I-Cannot-Agree-More. What are they talking about?”

There were other sentences.

“All women are careless, I cannot bear to have a female driver.”

“No man can be a good father, they are so irresponsible.”

She stood up for a closer look and found other messages.

“How can I live without 2-D characters? I can find no real man or woman as good.”

“Go to hell, parents and teachers.”

“I want to abandon my son. Why is it him?”

“I literally hate all humans.”

“Only here can I find people who agree with me. It’s so happy.”

Selina closed her eyes.

“Isn’t it?” A cold and hissy voice. She turned around and saw a man with black wings. The man danced toward her, a smirk on his face. There were features of his eyes that reminded her of snakes.

“You hate them, don’t you? There will be thousands of voices agreeing with you,” the man hissed, looking into her eyes. “Leave your soul here.”

His face came nearer and nearer. His cold lips touched hers. She realized that it was a kiss. Dementor’s kiss.

------------

Melissa cried over her paper.

Crying was the first thing in life she couldn’t control, starting from childhood. If you cry, you lose. The wise old man said that to heroes. Heroes had shiny swords and supportive families, while she only had a pen, a father who related his daughter’s life and fame solely to marriage, and a former lover.

She wiped away her tears and began writing a short description of her next poem.

The snake is only half a meter behind. Larry grabs a branch of a tree and swings himself toward another branch. It takes nearly all his strength. Slowly, he moves himself toward the trunk.

Melissa remembered the time she was a student. When her father finally realized that a degree in literature could not help his daughter find a rich man as she claimed, he angrily demanded her to come back and threatened to cut off financial support. With grief and anger, she went to the beach and cried, when a boy doing a part-time job tapped her shoulder.

“If you don’t mind, miss,” he said, “the beach needs to be emptied and cleaned. Let me offer you a cup of hot coffee in the cabin.”

Jason admitted later that hot coffee was not a beach service.

They started to know each other. Melissa learned about a world she had never been to before, Jason’s world, where you might never get a chance to be educated, where you needed to spend the whole autumn for harvest and the whole summer for a job, yet no one you were working for would thank you.

For the first time, Melissa had a patient listener of her story and her dream.

Larry tries to stabilize himself. He holds the broken —

Melissa’s hand was shaking so much that she had miswritten the word branch as broken.

“No, I want my family and life!”

Selina did not realize what she was saying as she tried to get away. “Help!” she screamed. The man’s face twisted into a furious look.

She pushed him toward the floating cursing sentences. He hissed. Selina ran away from the cave as fast as possible. The next second she found herself by the side of a valley.

She turned back. There was no longer a cave.

What is this place? Subconsciously, she took some steps forward. Down the cliff, the scene was covered by white mist. The mist suddenly faded and she saw an angel washing her wings by a clear creek. A bird sang remotely. On the other side of the cliff, there was a gigantic tree, hiding a familiar figure. It looked like her own house.

Her vision was no longer blurred.

Melissa took some deep breaths. Thinking about the past somehow gave her some courage. She marked out the word broken and rewrote the sentence. Larry grabs the steadiest branch. He looks down. The snake is hissing at him by the tree. It also wants to climb up.

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Jason could not see in the mist, nor did he notice how near he was to the cliff. Escape, as you always do, the voice hissed, louder and somehow a little bit shaky. From your father and brothers, from your wife, from your daughter. Let cowards go somewhere they can be praised. Not the world.

Without noticing, Jason’s foot rose. He was maintaining a dangerous balance by the cliff.

Go.

“No!” A girl’s voice screamed from afar. “I want my family and my life, help!”

Jason stopped.

“Help!”

He noticed how similar this voice was to Selina’s voice. It was Selina.

The voice hissed furiously, but Jason did not care. “Selina? Can you hear me?” he called.

No reply.

Jason called and called until his throat was too hoarse to make a sound. But somehow his mind was clear. There is still Selina and Melissa, what have I nearly done?

He turned around and immediately began to run, as far as possible, from the tempting sound.

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There was someone already standing by the cliff. It was a pale boy, a mixture of innocence and confusion on his face. The boy looked surprisingly familiar.

“Martin?”

The boy turned around. “Selina.”

The boy in her neighborhood was always quiet and unhappy. He spent most of his time wandering around instead of going home. I suggested he go to the school counseling station, but he refused.

Martin managed to smile. “I thought at least you were happy, Selina. If anyone’s soul would not be here, it should be yours.”

She could not look in his eyes anymore. Eyes fixed on the tree on the other side, she asked: “Why are you here?”

“Everyone came here to escape reality, yet they do not admit it,” Martin answered, in his quiet and suppressive way. “Me? To get away from John.”

“I thought you were best friends.”

Martin sighed. “We were and will be if my father permits the other relationship. What’s the difference between being together with a girl and a boy, anyway?”

“That’s why you came…”

“I came. I cannot choose. Nor could I bear to bring misfortune to John.”

Selina remembered Martin, silently reading books, occasionally coming to school with scars. She thought about herself, and how afraid she was, facing the risk of losing her soul. She tried several times and opened her mouth.

She intended to shout, but it became a murmur. “Here is not somewhere to escape. Let’s go back, even reality will be better than here.”

Martin lowered his head. “But we can only jump across. I’m afraid of falling.”

"At least we can try,” said Selina.

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Larry climbs higher and higher. The snake hisses and circles at the trunk. Slowly, its body rises from the ground. Larry dares not to look down. The sky is already visible as he grabs the tallest branch. Melissa continued.

They jumped.

Selina found herself, instead of falling, flying toward the other edge. She looked back and saw the look of confusion and grief on Martin’s face as he flew. Suddenly his face turned paler. He opened his mouth: “Careful.”

Selina turned and saw a massive figure. A black snake with huge black wings, eyes wide and yellow, was hissing at her. It opened its great mouth, where she could only see a murky hollowness, and dashed toward her at a speed she could not escape. I will be lost forever, she thought.

------------

Melissa wrote more and more quickly. Her heart beat heavily. Larry turns and sees the snake, the snake opens its mouth.

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The hollowness nearly swallowed Selina, when something white and shiny squeezed in between her and the snake.

With surprise, Selina found that it was a huge paper plane.

The paper plane inclined toward her, like an invitation. Without hesitation, she climbed onto the plane. The plane rushed away. Faraway, the snake hissed furiously and went down into the valley. The plane kept going steadily.

“Turn back,” Selina spoke to the plane. It obeyed. She then ordered it to go and get Martin. The paper plane quivered.

Selina looked up, just in time to see Martin’s fearful face. In front of him was a second snake. The snake opened its mouth and swallowed him. Then it faded away.

“Martin?”

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In the middle of walking, Jason began to run. He ran and ran until he felt soft sand under his shoes.

He brought himself to the beach where everything began.

She was the best scene of all on the beach, he remembered; the sunset lost its color behind her. He quietly approached her, and she turned around. There were tears in her eyes.

It was from her that Jason learned about freedom, equality, poetry, and art. She confided, and he listened. What a strange alliance the two young people had formed! It was Melissa who took his hand, praised him, and led him to a brand-new world.

Jason was too tired to run. He sat on the beach. It was the time for sunset. The dying sun had colored half the sky a faint orange, which broke into the sea waves like tiny stars. Indeed, he saw a glittering star drifting nearer and nearer.

It became so near that Jason found it was an adrift bottle.

Another rush of waves pushed it up.

Jason drew out a paper roll and, surprisingly, found Melissa’s handwriting.

A letter to my love Jason, written before Selina’s 15th birthday. I hope he can pick it up, I also hope he will never come, or he will know how love will never fade away.

Inside my body, there is still the same girl excited by the world of language and by the appearance of the young boy. How she wishes he could appear!

I never refused to be a mother, but how hard it is, to balance childcare with my writing, as my novel is reaching a critical point. How much does society demand a woman to pay for her child–half of a life, or a whole life? If only he understood that I am struggling like him. If only he knew how we could deal with it together . . .

I sealed my heart here. Take it, sea, for there will never be a chance in life that it will reappear. I understand why, yet I do not want to. Will all true love in the world fall at last into financial and time alliance? Will all husbands eventually treat their girl as a wife instead of a person? How can I explain this to my dearest Selina? . . .

There was a lot more, but Jason read slowly.

At the bottom of the bottle, Jason found something shiny. He took it out and found it was a pair of rings. They were made of plastic, like some baby products, yet they were beautiful. Preciously, he took the pair of rings and headed home.

------------

Larry lets go of the branch. He falls, every second feels like an hour. Then he is caught by a soft curtain. Melissa smiled.

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“Is he dead?”

Still no reply.

The plane urged Selina to turn around and continue her way back.

Part 4: The End

Someone was standing in the middle of the road. Jason saw that it was Jack.

“You found the traveler?”

“I did and I found Selina,” Jason replied. He suddenly remembered Jack’s son. “Listen, Jack, it is not a rumor. It is true. You need to find the man to bring the children’s souls back.”

“Nonsense,” Jack said, in a desperately confirmed way. “Nonsense. My boy is perfectly all right. He will wake up.”

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It would be another day of waiting. Jason realized it before he opened his eyes. He could never confirm what he had done by the valley, but surely something happened.

“It is never the town bar, mom,” Someone was saying.

Jason opened his eyes and saw two figures standing in the living room. One of them was Melissa, another looked like Selina. Someone was crying in the neighborhood, but he could not pay attention to that anymore.

He rushed into the living room. He saw streams of golden light coming from the morning sun.